During thunderstorms, lightning sometimes travels up above the clouds—not down toward the ground, the way it’s usually portrayed. This type of lightning—called sprites or jets—is what Matt Heavner studied during graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Specifically, he studied the energy that this type of lightning releases into the middle atmosphere.
“The energetics and chemistry of the middle atmosphere increased my interest in studying and understanding climate,” he says.
Heavner has sustained that interest throughout his career. At Los Alamos National Laboratory in the early 2000s, he worked on the FORTE satellite (which, among other things, helped scientists study lightning from space). Heavner has also worked at the University of Alaska Southeast—where he taught physics, climate, atmospheric science, and planetary science—and in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House, where he worked on nuclear security and energy issues. Heavner recently returned to Los Alamos from the Department of Energy (DOE), where he helped establish the Arctic Energy Office. Heavner is now the Laboratory’s climate and clean energy coordinator, a new position that was created to synchronize the Lab’s work in those areas.
Heavner sat down with NSS to discuss all things energy, federal policy, and why he hopes his new job might one day be eliminated.
Why does energy security equal national—and also global—security?
Energy security is fundamental to modern society and is the basis for personal, community, and economic security.
Globally, energy insecurity drives conflict and migration—just look at what’s happening in Ukraine.
Domestically, U.S. policy clearly states that energy is directly tied to security. Presidential Policy Directive 12 established the policy that the U.S. energy system is one of 16 sectors of critical infrastructure. In this case, “critical infrastructure” is defined as systems and assets—physical or virtual—so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters.
That sounds complicated. Where does Los Alamos fit in?
The challenge of climate change and energy transition is an all-hands-on-deck effort that absolutely requires DOE’s national laboratories. Los Alamos specifically brings together the breadth of physics-informed modeling, natural and human complex systems, basic and applied energy research and development [R&D], demonstration and deployment, and place-based engagement to address the hardest security challenges.
Los Alamos has a diverse set of projects and programs related to climate and clean energy. These include climate modeling; infrastructure analysis; biotechnologies, such as biofuels and biomanufacturing; applied energy programs like fuel cell development, direct air capture technology, geothermal technology, and more; nuclear energy R&D, including small modular reactors and fusion; efforts to make Los Alamos operations more sustainable and resilient to climate-related threats such as wildfire and drought; and efforts to enable the achievement of the Biden Administration’s 2030/2050 climate and clean energy objectives.
The climate problem is much larger than what even one DOE lab can address, but Los Alamos’ breadth and experience is required to strategically lead and partner across the climate and clean energy spectrum.
What’s your role in all of this?
The impact of this work at Los Alamos can be magnified through coordination. My role is to facilitate the coordination, help identify and address gaps across the Laboratory’s climate and clean energy efforts, facilitate and support cross-Lab partnerships as well as strategic external partnerships, and to make all of this the regular way Los Alamos executes across the climate and clean energy work being done. The ultimate success of my position is to eliminate the need for my role!
A significant part of my day-to-day work is spent in discussions with staff, program offices, and line management to understand current efforts and identify and facilitate cross-program integration that will accelerate the work and magnify the impact of the work across the climate and clean energy portfolio.
I develop documents to articulate—internally and externally—the Laboratory’s climate and clean energy priorities and strategies. I work with Lab leadership to influence broader investment strategies to accelerate research, development, and deployment of climate and clean energy solutions, as well as respond to national security challenges that arise from a warming climate.
What work are you particularly excited about and why?
The urgency and the magnitude of the climate crisis and energy transition is personally very compelling. The breadth of the Laboratory’s work in climate and clean energy, coupled with the general enthusiasm of the workforce for this type of work, is also exciting and gives me a lot of optimism for the future.
Planetary scientist Carl Sagan once said that “anything else you’re interested in is not going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.” The work Los Alamos is doing can and will help the future of our planet. Knowing that I can perhaps make it happen faster and better is really motivating. ★